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Old 07-06-1999
John Rousmaniere John Rousmaniere is offline
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Grappling with that Vicious Storm

It's likely that many readers would like to put the Sydney-Hobart Race and its associated problems well behind them, and I'll do that at the end of these reports on Rob Mundle's exciting book on the race, Fatal Storm, published this month by International Marine, and on the results of the official investigation of the race.

The Fatal Storm

Fatal Storm is a terrific read. An experienced Australian boating writer, Mundle knows the race and the people well, and he also has done his legwork in conducting dozens of forthright interviews with sailors and rescuers. Wisely, he tells the story in a straightforward way. Books like this have so much inherent drama that tarting them up with sentiment and artificial emotion only detracts from their force. (One quibble: Reading the typescript, I was occasionally distracted by patches of unfamiliar 'Strain lingo from Down Under. Mundle's U.S. editor says those have been moderated in the book.) Mundle allows the people to speak for themselves about the trials and occasional horrors they experienced in the nightmarish "white-capped mountains" that they struggled through, under and all too infrequently around.

You, the reader, can form your own judgment as to whether the boats should have been there, whether the sailors did the right thing or whether the race should even have been started. Mundle does not go into those questions because his interest is with the people, and his portrayals of them and the vicious storm itself are as vivid as any I have read in any sea adventure.

The amazing finding that not only were the weather forecasters taken by surprise - the first storm forecast did not come until after the start - but they were incapable of translating their technical language into terms the sailors could understand and use.

Those other issues are addressed in the 165-page Report of the Sydney-Hobart Race Review Committee of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, released in early June. This will serve as a major contribution to the understanding of modern seamanship. Although the first paragraph states that there was no single cause of the disaster in which six sailors died, other than chance meetings with the wrong waves, it's clear from the meat of the book that there were three major factors.

First, and most important, the weather was truly appalling, as bad as or worse than the 1979 Fastnet. A low that was both very deep and moving extremely rapidly kicked up tremendous winds and with the assistance of a powerful contrary current, high seas. Worse still, it caused abnormally shifty, strong gusts and immense, vertical rogue waves from a confusing set of directions.

Second, comes the amazing finding that not only were the weather forecasters taken by surprise - the first storm forecast did not come until after the start - but they were incapable of translating their technical language into terms the sailors could understand and use. The Bureau of Meteorology, writes the committee, "assumed that its forecast winds would be interpreted as being up to 40 percent more than stated and seas up to 86 percent bigger. The fleet reported expecting winds and seas to be 'as forecast' or a bit stronger/bigger." Because of their assumption (is there any more dangerous word in the English language?), the weather forecasters could not tell the sailors what they most needed to hear in language they could easily understand. Forecasters are conservative folks; they don't want to be the boys crying wolf. Yet this behavior seems over the top. All sailors, of course, should train themselves to be capable, independent weather forecasters, yet all of us rely on forecasters to some degree. Are U.S. forecasters as out of touch with their clients?

Third, some or even many boats and crews were not well prepared. Most boats apparently did not have barometers. Many took lots of water below through broken hatches, ports and vents (which their crews optimistically left in place). There were a number of mistakes with life rafts. One, for example, was launched in anticipation of its inevitable use and left at the end of its painter until the line broke and the raft blew away. Another crew was caught under a capsized raft and apparently unaware that it could be righted, cut themselves out and the raft fell apart. Almost all the boats had the old 121.5 MHZ epirbs instead of the far more reliable and accurate 406 MHZ type.

In addition, the report and Mundle's book cite large numbers of broken limbs and other injuries caused by long falls across decks and cabins. The two lessons here are: first, it's a good thing in rough weather to be able to use a safety harness below; and second, that falls are much gentler if the tether is short. If you recall the May column reporting on the very high proportion of tethers that broke in tests, you will not be surprised by the committee's recommendation that boats be required to carry back-up tethers.

I wish the report were more thorough on three aspects of the seamanship equation of "boat plus sailing skill plus leadership." We don't know from the report if any boat type was better able to heave-to (a tricky maneuver in a short-keel modern boat) or run before the gale towing warps or an improvised drogue in order to slow down. One piece of good news was that only five of the 110 boats were rolled through 360 degrees (a very small proportion compared with the approximately 25 percent in the 1979 Fastnet storm), and that only 10 were dismasted (a good thing; a dismasted boat is less stable than one with a rig, which provides inertia against a quick, hard roll).

The second slight disappointment is the section on storm tactics. We are told that it was a good thing to keep the boat moving and steered capably either roughly toward or away from the wind and prevailing sea. Boats that quit the race and tried to beam-reach to shore were very badly beaten up. But it would be nice to learn some details. There is only one close study of a boat's tactics, those of Roger Hickman's well-handled Atara (whose story was told here in February).

Third, there is sketchy information about the leadership provided by the skipper and watch officers. The report tells us that over one-half the decisions to drop out of the race were made by skippers, yet we learn very little about those skippers who are bunched in with all crews in a study of average experience for the entire fleet. Boats that finished, we are told, had only seven percent greater experience than the boats that withdrew, the point once again being that the major factor at play was the quantity and quality of one's luck. Still, I believe that some people seem to be lucky all the time, and they usually turn out to be especially strong leaders of especially well-prepared boats. As a believer that leadership is the most important human factor when facing dangerous situations, I want to know more about who those skippers were.

These quibbles must not discourage you from studying the report, for the study of seamanship should and must take in all sources. Many decades ago the poet Byron wrote, "Man marks the earth with ruin - his control stops with the shore." We all know that he was correct in a broad way. Yet as true as Byron's dictum may be philosophically, what matters in our lives is not that we have no ultimate control over the environment but that we make the effort to improve our dealings with that often dangerous environment. Our God-given ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness will help us develop new skills and knowledge to understand the sea and the vessels that sail upon it. Nobody would venture beyond the shoreline without an optimistic confidence that even if the sea and wind themselves cannot be tamed, they at least can be grappled with and often even defended against. That is why we study seamanship, and why we welcome publications like the two that I have discussed here.

How to Obtain the Report

The Report of the Sydney-Hobart Race Review Committee may be obtained from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. I ordered it by fax (011-612-9363-9745), sending my credit card information. Its price is KA $20, airmail postage is KA $15.

J. R.